Student Projects from the Archives

Student Projects from the Archives


Susan Sontag outlines in Illness as Metaphor the romantic narratives of what she called a “tubercular personality.” Sontag writes the following in doing so, describing one key aspect of romantic tuberculosis: “TB was understood, like insanity, to a kind of one-sidedness; a failure of will or an overintensity…the tubercular was considered to be someone quintessentially vulnerable, and full of self-destructive whims” (63-64). “A failure of will” and “quintessential vulnerability” form a set of characteristics through which a narrative of the “tubercular personality” is constructed. The tubercular narrative Sontag describes is based on a wide variety of stereotypes. This creates a paradox in which the metaphorical trappings of the tubercular disposition are simultaneously correct and incorrect as persons with TB adhere to the narrative in some ways and deviate from it in others.

One aspect of this narrative touches on a “failure of will” regarding individuals living with TB. Sontag describes this part of the metaphor in detail in Illness as Metaphor:

While syphilis was thought to be passively incurred, an entirely involuntary disaster, TB was once...thought to be a pathology of energy, a disease of the will… Getting TB was thought to signify a defective vitality, or vitality misspent. (61-62).

This paradox is particularly apparent in a collection of case files from a psychiatric study conducted by Daniel Harris at the Saranac Lake Study and Craft Guild in the 1950s. Results from these case files culminate into a narrative in which patients conform in some ways to the “quintessentially vulnerable” patient while simultaneously diverging from such stereotypes significantly. The aim of this paper is to examine a sample of these case files (patients 210, 293, and 241). Primary focus will be placed on questionnaires and interview responses which reveal the patients’ personalities, and plans made during and after their treatments. The narratives created by these responses will also be supplemented by forms filled out by the interviewers themselves. The paper will then compare these narratives to the tubercular profile found in Sontag’s Illness as Metaphorand account for the paradoxes they present.



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